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Serena conquers Maria

- World No.1 faces Azarenka in the summit clash

Brisbane: Serena Williams extended her winning streak over Maria Sharapova to 14 matches following a 6-2, 7-6 (9-7) win in the semi-finals of the Brisbane International, on Friday.

In a match which involved poor serving and high-quality groundstrokes in equal measure, Serena maintained her hold over Sharapova to set up a final showdown with second seed Victoria Azarenka.

Serena, the world No.1, and Sharapova played down their animosity before the match, but there was no eye contact during preliminaries and on a steamy night in Brisbane their body language remained distinctly frosty throughout.

The result was a match with an intensity scarcely seen outside of a Grand Slam, something Serena feels is of great benefit to her.

“(I) feel like I’m being pushed into the deep end straightaway,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing.

“In Melbourne if I have to face Maria again I’ll know a little bit more what to expect. I really didn’t know what to expect today.”

Serena secured the first of the 10 service breaks in the match in the fourth game and though Sharapova broke straight back, she lost her serve twice more as the American ran out a comfortable first set winner.

The Russian responded well to hold a 2-1 lead after three consecutive breaks of serve in the second set, before calling her coach Sven Groeneveld to courtside. His words illustrated the match held far more importance than a normal Grand Slam warm-up.

“You’re letting her know you’re in her face,” he said, adding that she “must commit” to her serve.

Sharapova did win the ensuing service game, but lost the next one to restore parity.

In the tiebreak, Serena’s brutal groundstrokes gave her the advantage, but consecutive double faults kept her opponent in it and she needed three match points before sealing victory with an ace.

Azarenka secured her place in the final with a see-saw victory over Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Top seed Serena feels the match will be a good barometer of where they are ahead of the first Grand Slam.

“I think it’ll be a really good match to see where we both stand as the two most consistent players of the last year-and-a-half,” Serena said.

Sharapova’s pain at losing a 14th straight match to nemesis Serena will be eased by the thought that she can compete at the highest level again after being sidelined for four months with a shoulder injury.

Before this week at the Brisbane International, Sharapova had not played since August when a shoulder problem forced her out of the US Open.

Although the defeat to her rival will sting, she admitted showing she can mix it with the best player in the world is more than she could have hoped for coming into the tournament.

“I really have to take the positives out of this because I have been struggling for a few months,” she said.

“To be able to come out on the court and put myself in good positions out there against someone that’s been playing amazing tennis is a good sign for me.

“(I am) happy that I can compete at this level in my third match back.

“It was tough not seeing my name in the draws and tough seeing everybody playing tournaments and you’re just kind of going about trying to find a way to heal an injury and a bit unsure when that will happen.

“(There were) a lot of question marks.”

Despite being pleased with her overall performance, Sharapova knows Serena is unlikely to land her first serve just 40 percent of the time if they meet in Melbourne Park later this month.

While Sharapova was more consistent with her first serve, she concedes it was not threatening enough, leading to Serena breaking her on six occasions. (Reuters)